Far before the terms Native American or Indian were created, the tribes were spread throughout the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian grew its culture and heritage without disturbance. And that history is fascinating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s today the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a story of beautiful arts and crafts and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed remarkably advanced structures and public works.
While there was inescapable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the tale of our ancestors. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and intensely plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first ships in our direction, the intention was to explore new resources – however the quality of environment and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife subsequently changed their tune. As those leaders learned from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish rushed to carve up the “New World” by transporting over poorly prepared colonists as fast as possible. At the beginning, they skirmished with the surprised Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that ultimately gave way to trade, since the Europeans who came ashore here understood that their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed decades of comparative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American land. But the pressure to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were anxious to find additional resources, and some colonists came for independence and opportunity.
They wanted more space. And so began the process of pushing the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash arrangements, barter, and famously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored once the Indians were forced off the land in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were determined by the desire to expand westward into territories occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s nearly all Native American tribes, roughly 360,000 in number, were living to the west of the Mississippi River. These American Indians, some from the Northwestern and Southeastern territories, were confined to Indian Territory situated in contemporary Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the territory of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met hardship as the continuous flow of European immigrants into northeastern American cities pushed a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these diverse groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of the United States was marked by its steady expansion to the Mississippi River. However, due to the Gadsden purchase, that lead to U.S. control of the borderlands of southern New Mexico and Arizona as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion wouldn’t end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the United States roughly doubled the amount of acreage within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wanted to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, partnered with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive possibilities for those willing to make the huge trip westward. As a result, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers began building their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American tribe-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and operations established and adapted in the United States to define the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign country, it implemented the European policies towards these indigenous peoples, but throughout two centuries the U.S. adapted its own widely varying policies regarding the changing perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administrate the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress formed a new agency within the War Department referred to as Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked closely with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, independent political communities with numerous cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, hand over their land and assimilate into the American customs.
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With the steady stream of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers circulated sensationalized reports of savage native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers get across the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the good natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the likelihood of an attack.
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To soothe these concerns, in 1851 the U.S. government presented a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct tracks and forts in this territory and agreed never to go after settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total payments to the Indians. The Native American tribes responded quietly to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who signed the treaty, even consented to end the hostilities amidst their tribes to be able to accept the terms of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes did not hold long. After hearing tales of fertile land and tremendous mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their promises established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the area. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a policy of restricting Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory that was reserved exclusively for Indian use, in order to offer more land for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government commanded Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly payment that would include cash in addition to foodstuffs, livestock, household goods and farming tools. These reservations were established in an attempt to pave the way for increased U.S. expansion and administration in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to lessen the potential for friction.
History of the Plains Indians
These agreements had many challenges. Most significantly many of the native peoples did not properly understand the document that they were finalizing or the conditions within it; further, the treaties did not respect the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government bureaus accountable for applying these policies were plagued with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never accomplished.
The U.S. government almost never held up their side of the agreements even when the Native Americans went quietly to their reservations. Dishonest bureau agents repeatedly sold off the supplies that were meant for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Moreover, as settlers needed more property in the West, the federal government frequently cut the size of reservation lands. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by the settlers’ persistent hunger for land.
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Angered by the government’s deceitful and unjust policies, several Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, battled back. As they fought to protect their lands and their tribes’ survival, more than one thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these conflicts with costly military campaigns. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian regulations were in need an adjustment.
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Native American policy shifted drastically after the Civil War. Reformers believed that the scheme of pushing Native Americans into reservations was far too strict even while industrialists, who were worried about their property and resources, regarded assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” as the sole permanent method of guaranteeing Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government enacted a critical law proclaiming that the United States would not treat Native American tribes as independent nations.
This law signaled a major change in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now deemed the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdictional control, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress believed that it was easier to make the policy of assimilation a broadly acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials looked at assimilation as the most effective answer to what they viewed as “the Indian problem,” and the only long-term strategy for insuring U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pressed Native Americans to move out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden homes and become farmers.
The federal government handed down laws that pressed Native Americans to abandon their established appearance and way of living. Some laws banned common religious practices while others ordered Indian males to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations organized courts to impose federal regulations that often prohibited traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To hasten the assimilation process, the government set up Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and forcefully Americanize Indian children. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “kill the Indian and save the man.” In order to achieve this goal, the schools compelled students to speak only English, dress in proper American fashion and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations brought Native Americans nearer to the end of their original tribal identity and the beginning of their existence as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. administration.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most significant part of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was developed to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to be farmers. In order to make this happen, Congress needed to establish private ownership of Indian land by splitting up reservations, which were collectively owned, and providing each family their own stretch of land.
In addition to this, by forcing the Native Americans onto small plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining land. The General Allotment Act, referred to as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be awarded an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the land was to be sold. Congress wished that the Dawes Act would divide Indian tribes and stimulate individual enterprise, while trimming the cost of Indian supervision and producing prime property to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be catastrophic for the American Indians; over the next decades they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of life but didn’t supply the necessary resources to support their businesses and households. Splitting the reservations into small parcels of land triggered the significant decrease of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the acreage that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was purchased by white settlers.
Frequently, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order pay bills and take care of their families. Consequently, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were routinely not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the creators of the Act had desired. It also generated resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment method often ruined land that was the spiritual and cultural location of their activities.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed substantially. Due to U.S. administration regulations, American Indians were forced from their living spaces as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed without limits, were now filling with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians ended up cheated out of their land, food and lifestyle, as the “” government’s Indian regulations coerced them inside reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands didn’t survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was lowered to less than 250,000 persons. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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